French-led forces received a hero's welcome as they entered Mali's fabled desert city of Timbuktu in a lightning advance north, as fleeing Islamists torched a building housing priceless ancient manuscripts.
Residents of the ancient city on the edge of the Sahara desert erupted in joy as French and Malian troops entered Monday, an AFP correspondent reported.
They waved French and Malian flags and shouted "Mali, Mali, Mali," after months under the Islamists' brutal rule.
As the soldiers received a rapturous welcome, in Paris French President Francois Hollande declared: "We are winning in Mali." And by "we", he added, he meant the Malian army, the Africans supported by the French.
"There were no shots fired, no blood split. Not even passive resistance with traps," Colonel Frederic Gout, head of French helicopter operations at the city, told AFP.
Residents said many of the Islamist occupiers had left several days ago, as French air strikes rained down on their bases across the north.
A French military source however spoke of fears they could have dotted the city with mines and said they were in the process of "securing" it.
Even as the Franco-Malian force approached the city, however, Malian security and military sources reported that a building housing tens of thousands of manuscripts from the ancient Muslim world and Greece had been set on fire.
Timbuktu mayor Halley Ousmane, speaking from the capital Bamako, confirmed reports of the fire at the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, denouncing what he called a crime against culture.
The centre housed between 60 000 and 100 000 manuscripts, according to Mali's culture ministry.
The centre was set up in 1973 and in 2009 a new building was opened following an agreement with South Africa to protect the manuscripts as African heritage.
Timbuktu was for centuries a cosmopolitan city and a centre of Islamic learning.
Radical Islamists seized the city in April 2012 and held it and several other northern cities for 10 months, having seized the north of the country in the chaos that followed a military coup last March.
Under the Islamists, women in Timbuktu were forced to wear veils, and those judged to have violated their strict version of Islamic law were whipped and stoned.
The militants also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.
On Monday, however, residents of the city were celebrating their new-found freedom.
Lahlia Garba, a woman in her fifties, expressed her relief that the hard-line Islamists had been forced out.
"I had to wear a burqa, gloves and cover everything," she said.
Hama Cisse, another Timbuktu resident, exclaimed: "We are independent again! We were held hostage for 10 months but it seemed like 10 years."
The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned Mali over reports its army had committed abuses.
Rights groups and journalists have reported allegations that Malian troops have executed suspects on the spot in towns recaptured during the offensive.
"All those alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in Mali must be held accountable," he warned.
Monday's advance into Timbuktu, 1000 kilometres north of Bamako, came 18 days after the French launched their offensive to wrest the vast desert north from the Islamists with the support of Malian troops.
Only one Islamist stronghold remains to be retaken: the town of Kidal in the desert hills of the far north, 1500 kilometres northeast of the capital.
France now has 2900 soldiers in Mali.
Nearly 8000 African troops from Chad and the west African bloc ECOWAS are expected to take over from them, but their deployment has been slow, with 2700 split between Mali and Niger.
The African-led force will require a budget of $460-million, the African Union said on the final day of its summit in Addis Ababa on Monday, promising to contribute $50-million for the mission.
The International Monetary Fund agreed on Monday to provide an $18.4-million emergency loan to Mali. That is likely to persuade other donors, who cut off aid following the March 2012 coup, to release more funds.
A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron said London was keen to contribute more in addition to the two transport planes and a surveillance aircraft it has already provided.
Reports in two British papers on Tuesday, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror, suggested as many as 200 troops might be involved.
That would include tens deployed as part of an EU mission to train Malian forces, with the rest in neighbouring countries to help train a regional intervention force, the papers said.